Marama Davidson and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer brought the high-fives. Winston Peters and David Seymour brought high dudgeon. Toby Manhire reports from the Powerbrokers debate in Auckland.
No wonder the big parties are so unloved. After the soporific Chris Show on Tuesday, the Newshub Nation Powerbrokers debate last night was an espresso martini. The leaders of Act, the Greens, Te Pati Māori and NZ First were much less cautious and had plenty more to say.
Together in the middle, if not the centre, Marama Davidson and Debbie Ngarewa-Packer debated in tandem. They high-fived a line about wealth tax. They high-fived another about coalition-building. “Matua!” they exclaimed at every Winston Peters outrage. At one point they embraced. Peters scolded. “You aren’t on the marae now, behave yourself.” They looked more like they were in the club, flanked by a pair of besuited bouncers called David and Winston.
It was at this event in the last campaign that Winston Peters suddenly came alight. This time he was lit when he arrived – strictly in the illuminated sense of the word. He didn’t look worried about his beloved Green Parrot, he looked like he was in it. Hovering at the door to the venue before the debate began, Peter was wished good luck by an audience member. “I don’t need any luck, mate,” he beamed.
In the commercial breaks, Peters kept debating, but not with anyone on the stage. He and John Tamihere, the Pāti Māori president seated in the audience, exchanged salvos. “So, John, how’s it going so far?” “Come on, Winston, fire up, fire up!” “I’ve got news for you, John, and it’s all bad.” It wasn’t clear who was heckling who.
Seymour and Peters do have a few things in common. A loathing for what they call “separatism” and a loathing for each other. Not so much high fives as high dudgeon. As Seymour embarked on a bit of a sermon, Peters ostentatiously checked his wristwatch, slumped sleepily forward on the lectern. When Seymour was defending himself against the claim of race-baiting, Peters interjected, “He’s not baiting, he’s imitating!” He was so pleased he giggled for about 30 seconds.
Sometimes Peters was simply baffling. He told Davidson, “I’m not a cis white man.” He made an incomprehensible reference to breastfeeding. He told Seymour on the subject of forming a government, “We need to get some adults in a room and keep our trousers on, for goodness sake.”
Seymour accepted, grudgingly, that he would work in some way with Peters if it was required for a change of government, though from the body language alone it was easy to believe, as Seymour told The Spinoff last week, “We’re not going to sit around the cabinet table with this clown.” “David, David, David, this is sad,” said Peters as Seymour denounced his rival as bauble thirsty. Peters kept returning to his government experience, his rodeo tally. “I’ll show him how it’s done.”
The Act leader did manage to invoke Kate Sheppard within seconds of speaking, to a groan from the room. Nelson Mandela will be devastated to hear he didn’t get a mention. Seymour did have his moments. Peters was “an arsonist showing up to a fire saying, ‘I’m here to help.’” But for most of the hour he stared straight ahead, refusing to get involved in the hubbub, monotoning lines down the barrel of the camera. Sometimes he looked like he was in another debate entirely.
That may have played a good deal better in lounges than it did in the room. There, Davidson was the most impressive of the bunch, alternating mischief with impassioned moments. During one back-and-forth between the two women and Matua Peters, Davidson looked him in the eye and said, “He taonga te kaumatua”. Our elderly are treasures.
Whether he detected the shade or not, I don’t know. Peters just kept smiling into the night. Like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat, the grin remained some time after the rest of him had gone.